Bowen: Can the new guy in Pasco pay for the old playground we broke?

The closed playground at Starkey Wilderness Park in Pasco County.
The closed playground at Starkey Wilderness Park in Pasco County.
Published December 5 2017
Updated December 7 2017

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one might be valued at millions — dollars, not vocabulary.

The image shows yellow caution tape and an orange construction fence blocking access to children’s slides, monkey bars and a bridge. The message to kids is clear. No playing on the playground.

The equipment at the J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park has been shuttered for 10 months. It is indicative of what happens when there is not enough money to take care of things. In this instance, the playground is no longer considered safe to use.

The picture is the most telling illustration presented to the public last week as Pasco County staffers started measuring whether property owners want to change the way the county pays for operation of its parks and libraries.

Right now, the county spends just shy of $21 million for its parks and libraries as part of its general fund financed by property taxes. Certainly, you could legitimately argue they ought to be able to find money for a new playground in that $14.6 million parks budget. But what about the next one? Or, the dilapidated concession stand at the youth football field or the air conditioning inside a gymnasium or the swimming pool marcite?

The county has a backlog of $14 million worth of deferred maintenance projects at its parks. It never completed building the facilities called for in a now-15-year-old park master plan. (Think Wesley Chapel District Park with no gymnasium/rec center.) And, a 2015 plan update suggested the county needed $135 million worth of new park expansions over the next decade to meet a growing population and to provide services more equitably. For instance, there is no county swimming pool east of Land O’Lakes and, until last month, the county had not added a single new athletic field west of Collier Parkway since the early 1990s.

The county wonders if people will support the idea of separate taxing units for parks and libraries. Commissioners are pondering asking the public to consider that possibility in a 2018 voter referendum.

Before doing so, however, commissioners told their staff to go find out the public’s feelings. That started last week with an online survey and three town hall meetings.

I sat in on the Nov. 29 session at the Land O’Lakes Recreation Complex. Only a dozen people, including two journalists, signed the attendance sheet. Certainly, it is too small of a sample to gauge widespread public sentiment, but those who did speak, spoke with passion on both sides of the subject.

Joel Jackson moved to Land O’Lakes in 2012 from the Lake Magdalene area, just south of Lutz in Hillsborough County. He said he would support paying additional taxes for parks and libraries.

"I was a little bit shocked at the services here,’’ Jackson said, "I felt sorry for you guys, really.’’

Contrast that to Diane and Mitchell Kobernick of Gulf Harbors in west Pasco.

She is one of two women challenging Pasco County’s acquisition of an abandoned golf course in their neighborhood and requiring residents to finance half the cost of what is expected to be an environmental preserve and possibly a passive park.

The Kobernicks and their neighbors are facing the cost of buying and maintaining that park, plus the potential expense of dredging their canals and higher stormwater drainage assessments that are confronting other west Pasco areas.

"It seems like we’re being nickel-and-dimed to death on taxes,’’ Diane Kobernick said.

Her husband wondered why impact fees are not covering the cost of park expansions. That’s a good question.

But impact fees — one-time surcharges on new home construction — can only pay the expense of building parks and libraries, not operating and maintaining them.

Additionally, impact fees can only address the need for new facilities, not the backlog that existed before someone moved into the area and built a new home.

In other words, you can’t dump an old problem on the new guys and gals.

Plus, and nobody said this, but county commissioners declined to raise the park impact fees last year even though their own master plan said the fee should be doubled to nearly $1,800 per new single-family home.

Commissioners are expected to hear the results of the public outreach effort in a Jan. 30 workshop.

Figure the message might parrot what Keith Wiley, acting director of the county’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources, told the audience in Land O’Lakes.

"If you don’t make a reinvestment,’’ Wiley said, "we’re going to have problems.’’

For proof of that, just ask the kids at Starkey Park.